A 10-page paper that I wrote in college about the show ‘Family Ties’

Posted on July 8, 2012

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Timing is Everything

        What was the secret of Family Ties success?  Was it Geena Davis’ guest appearances as the Keaton’s housekeeper?  The impossible-not-to-sing-along-to theme song?  Or could it have been the addition to the cast of Nick, the Fonzie/Rocky hybrid?  Undoubtedly, it was certainly intriguing to watch the beautiful Geena Davis appear freakishly gigantic next to the dwarfish Alex.  And, besides “To be or not to be?” there may be no more potent question than “What would we do, baby, without us? Sha-la-la-laaaa.”  And the Nick character must have won over both the environmental artist and monosyllabic speakers demographic.

But in the end, Family Ties’ success can be attributed to mainly one thing: timing.   The show began in 1982 as more and more Americans trusted the republican administration to pull them out of the recession with supply-side Reaganomics.  As the first season came to a close, so began the largest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history. Then seven successful seasons later Family Ties called it quits, the same year Reagan moved out of the White House and the yuppie decade came to a close.

Family Ties was the sitcom for the 1980s.  People not only recognize this now, but they also realized it then.  In June of 1989 The New York Times ran an article entitled “Three Shows that Captured a Decade,” discussing Family Ties, Moonlighting, and Miami Vice.  It calls these shows “inextricably of their time” and labels Alex P. Keaton as “greed with the face of an angel.”[1]  A character that was first conceived by the show’s creators as “morally repellent” actually ended up making 80’s greed charming and endearing.  (We can be thankful that Archie Bunker wasn’t younger, 5’4″ tall and Canadian.)  Then almost ten years later, in 1998, The New York Times again ran an article about Family Ties called, “In a Sitcom for Its Time, Teen-Agers Knew Best.”  The article comments, “There is no doubt how well a top sitcom can serve its era before passing on.”[2]

Good timing is a major reason why any long lasting sitcom works.  It’s hard to imagine Sanford and Son in the ‘fifties or The Brady Bunch in the ‘nineties.  Family Ties is no different.  As part of the long line of sitcom evolution, its creation wasn’t accidental but inevitable.  It was just similar enough to most every sitcom that came before so people would be comfortable with the formula, and just new and different enough to captivate a contemporary audience.  Family Ties’ structure, premise, characters, and storylines, along with the ideological work done by each of these components, can all be considered modern updates of a traditional family sitcom.  Additionally, it must be said that another reason for the show’s success was simply the wild popularity of Michael J. Fox, who still lives and breathes on the cover of People magazine to this day.

At the most basic level, the structure and format of Family Ties is what makes the show a sitcom.  There is no ambiguity to this generic categorization, as in the cases of dramadies like Frank’s Place or one-hour comedies such as Ally McBeal.  Family Ties is thirty minutes long and shot in front of a studio audience. There is one all-encompassing situation that drives each week’s episode — filled with comedic dialogue and plot points, accompanied by a laugh track and frequently interrupted by commercials.  And now it has been relegated from the top of prime time to the 1AM slot of Nick-at-Nite –where sitcoms go to die — joined by its old competitors Cheers and The Cosby Show.

This traditional structure, however, was often tinkered with, making the show refreshing and sometimes jarringly bizarre for a sitcom.  Interestingly, the show was originally conceived as a one-hour show for CBS, and the eventual NBC sitcom version often revealed these early tendencies.  In its seven years, Family Ties ran nearly twenty two-part episodes, one three-part episode, and a two hour TV movie.[3]  These episodes comprised almost a third of all episodes.  Many of these dealt with issues the producers deemed worthy of necessitating an entire hour or more.  Some addressed issues pertinent to the time, such as the divorce of Steven’s brother and sister-in-law or the banning of books in schools.  These episodes also focused on one main plot instead of having subplots run alongside, as in most of the self-contained thirty-minute episodes.

A handful were even aired as one-hour episodes.  The most memorable of these was an episode called “My Name is Alex” in which Alex deals with the death of his friend by performing almost entirely alone on a dark, sparse stage.  Alex breaks into tears at some points with no comedy to relieve him.  The last half hour was even run without commercials before the episode ended with Alex finally “finding himself,” looking straight into the camera and saying, “My Name is Alex Keaton.”[4]

Moreover, even some of the thirty-minute episodes ended non-traditionally.  Viewers are used to the quick tag at the end where the whole family can get in one big laugh together.  This didn’t always happen.  In one episode (aired the same year Back to the Future was released) Alex dreams he has traveled back in time to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  In the end, it is revealed that perhaps it was not a dream as Alex, frightened, stares at an old painting of the founding fathers before the credits roll.  I watched this episode a few weeks ago with a group of people, and the general consensus was, “This is too weird for me.”  So while Family Ties did often play with the sitcom structure, I would venture to guess that most remember it as a sweet, traditional sitcom.

One reason Family Ties played with the format so much is because it could.  The show was extremely popular, usually second to only The Cosby Show.  It could afford to take risks.  It’s no surprise that shows like Bosom Buddies weren’t allowed the same luxury — although, maybe a one-hour episode of Alf coming to terms with death would have been an instant classic.  A second possible reason for Family Ties’ innovations was the popular belief of early ‘eighties critics and viewers that the sitcom was a dead genre.  Family Ties seemed to adopt aspects of one-hour dramas in order to compete.  Also, The Cosby Show was so traditional that Family Ties may have wanted to set itself apart.  The Huxtables, after all, never took a trip to London to film their own TV movie.

Besides structure and format, the premise of Family Ties was additionally both old and modern.  The basic setup exactly resembles Father Knows Best.  Living in the suburbs, there are two loving, upper-middle class parents; a witty, ambitious teenage son; a classically feminine, telephone-loving teenage daughter; and a young tomboy.  The rationale behind this perfect nuclear family setup is simple.  First of all, almost all sitcoms can be boiled down to a family situation.  That is what viewers are familiar with and can relate to.  Even though Mary Tyler Moore lived by herself in an apartment, her workplace environment resembled a typical family structure.  Another example is Three’s Company, in which the three main characters were, on the surface, very much analogous to the Family Ties children: the male lead who everyone adored (and who was as much girl-crazy as Alex was republican) the ultra womanly ditz, and the not as pretty, smarter female.  Their landlords, the Ropers, then played the part of “parents.”

Another explanation for Family Ties’ setup has to do with the fact that most sitcoms are reactions to sitcoms that came before them.  Throughout much of the late ‘sixties and ‘seventies, the airwaves were filled with non-family sitcoms, or at least non-traditional family sitcoms.  Mork and Mindy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Welcome Back, Kotter were all popular examples of this trend.  Even All in the Family challenged tradition by incorporating a strange family situation and a spiteful attitude between members.

Family Ties was the 1980’s answer to this.  It brought back the perfect, nuclear family, and the show beats viewers over the head with how much the characters love each other.  During the opening credits, there is shot after shot of characters kissing and hugging each other.  For a few seasons, this was intercut with the family portrait being painted, and in every season, the opening credits end with a close-up of a picture of the family.  The message was being sent that the Keaton’s were the picture perfect family.  There is a flashback episode in which the characters all relate to little Andy stories concerning disagreements that have occurred between certain family members.  This episode is resolved by Mallory telling Andy, “Don’t remember the fights, Andy, just how we make up and how we love each other… we do.”  Obviously a far cry from the Norman Lear screamfests where the viewer can’t remember anything but the fighting.

But the TV audience didn’t just want another rehash of The Donna Reed Show, so the premise of Family Ties was also updated to suit the 1980s viewer.  The show was originally intended to focus on the liberal, Berkeley educated, formerly hippie parents and how they dealt with their more materialistic, contemporary children, particularly the preppy, hard-line republican Alex.  Steven works at a non-profit public broadcasting station, and many storylines revolve around both parents protesting something or other.  One time, they even end up in jail after a nuclear arms protest.  Alex is almost always embarrassed by his parents’ behavior.  His mindset is summed up well in the series finale when Steven asks Alex if his new salary will truly bring him fulfillment.  Alex half grins for a good five seconds as the audience cracks-up, knowing exactly what to expect in his response.  He then coolly replies, “Dad, it’ll bring it…” (more laughs from the audience) “clean it…” (even more) “…and press it for me in the mornings.”  Basically, the show pitted the hippie generation against the yuppie generation, and, just like in real life, the yuppies won.  The show concludes with Alex leaving for New York City to be the youngest executive ever at some “insert rich sounding last names here” company –validating the Protestant work ethic and endorsing Gordon Gekko’s famous line, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

Another way the premise and day-to-day situations were altered concerned the way Steven and Elyse raised their children.  As the Nick-at-Nite announcer puts it, “What’s worse than becoming like your parents?  Your kids becoming like your parents!  Family Ties is next!”  Because of their “rebellious” flower-power youth, the parents didn’t want to raise their children how people once did, as in Father Knows Best, for example.  As The New York Times put it, “Suddenly in the person of Alex, and to a lesser extent his siblings, the balance of power shifted from omnipotent parents of sitcoms past to bright, more mature offspring who stood up for themselves.”[5]

It seemed like every Brady Bunch ended with Mike sitting everyone down and solving the problems for the rest of the house with an eloquent speech.  Family Ties, perhaps in reaction to older shows, or to reflect a growing sense of an emerging teenage culture, lets the children solve problems on their own.  The children are fully capable of thinking like adults.  Alex and Mallory come to terms with each other by talking at length during a train ride home.  Alex, Mallory and Jennifer all make up when Jennifer feels ignored by the rest of the family.  In this particular episode, Alex again seems to be a step ahead of his parents when he tells Jennifer that she’s lucky because by the time she’s his age, the parents will already be “broken in.”  They’ll be like putty in Jennifer’s hands.  And again in the series finale, it is Alex who does the mature thing and initiates a conversation with Elyse after the two had been fighting.  Elyse is too indignant and stubborn (read: childlike) to talk to her own son first.

Steven’s character often seems like a parody of the Mike Brady father and a precursor of the dumbed-down dads that would emerge in the nineties alongside Homer Simpson.  While Steven Keaton isn’t yet the target of the show’s lesson, he still is usually clueless about how to teach the lesson.  Before Alex moves to New York, Steven sits him down for a classic father-son chat.  Steven asks, “Anything you want to ask me about life?”  Alex replies simply, “Not really, no.”  Then as seriously as possible, Steven relates to him clichéd aphorisms like “A penny saved is a penny earned,” and tells Alex, “Don’t lose your passion… more importantly, don’t lose your keys.”  Alex mocks him by saying, “Dad, a bird in the hand… makes it difficult to blow your nose.”  Throughout the show’s evolution, Steven went from a main, moral center to a target for Alex’s quips, continually undermined by other characters.  He eventually became Homer to the Simpsons, or Al to the Bundys just as The Simpsons and Married with Children became popular.

The ideologies put forth by Family Ties were also right for the time.  According to the White House, Family Ties was Reagan’s favorite show.  This wasn’t only because the protagonist had an autographed picture of Nixon on his nightstand.  The show oozed conservative family values during a time when divorce and teenage pregnancy were becoming bigger issues.  Family Ties looked down on or at least showed the problems associated with both of these issues and others like it, and it always contrasted the perfection of the Keaton nuclear unit with more “tainted” families.  What would we do, baby, without us?  Apparently live terrible lives.

Family Ties was also strongly pro-American in a time of heightened Cold War tension.  Even though Alex and his parents were supposedly light-years apart on the political spectrum, they seemed to agree on most issues that set the U.S. apart from the Soviet Union, such as freedom of speech.  As mentioned before, a whole episode was devoted to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the “duty” Steven had to realize by appearing before congress and stand up for what he believed in.

In another episode, the entire family protests the school board’s decision to ban books such as Huckleberry Finn.  Elyse calls this a “Disgrace to the community, to the state, and to the country!!”  The writers even made this a two-part episode with a single storyline, when in hindsight the plot clearly did not necessitate a full hour.  The cast somehow got through forced lines like, “I never thought reading a book would be something I had to fight for.”  And it’s uncomfortable to watch the family sit around the living room smiling at each other as Steven reads Huckleberry Finn aloud.  This type of blatant social commentary doesn’t seem to work in a real-life situation as it does when it is a few steps removed as in Dinosaurs or The Simpsons.  It seems completely cheesy and propagandistic — just as hard to swallow as real life political rhetoric often is.

However, while the show may have failed in these deliberate political pleas, it quietly did make major steps towards a more “enlightened” sitcom family.  Family Ties is one of the first family sitcoms where women and men didn’t have to conform to any stereotypes to be accepted.  It would’ve been weird if Marlo Thomas wasn’t cute, giggly That Girl, but rather “That Woman” with a heart of steel and a pants-filled wardrobe.   Yet it doesn’t seem odd that Meredith Baxter Birney is given top billing in the opening credits of a non star-driven, family sitcom, or that she is more successful as an architect than Steven is doing public broadcasting work, or that she does housework (rarely) without wearing the traditional housedress.

It is taken for granted that Steven will help with the chores and the children, and Steven is also able to show his loving feelings to his family.  In the book-banning episode, Elyse is much more vocal than Steven with the principal and at the school board meetings.  Steven doesn’t seem resentful of this, but just accepts the fact that his wife can be smarter than he is.

Also, after Jennifer grows up, she is the character that teenage, female viewers should want to identify with.  Her intelligence and accomplishments undermine the more traditionally feminine, fashion designing Mallory.  Mallory is the butt of almost every joke and is never allowed to succeed like Alex.  So while Family Ties presents classic family values, it takes a modern feminist approach with respect to gender roles.  And it does it intelligently and subliminally, without having to quote The Constitution.

It is true that Family Ties was truly a sitcom for its time.  It fit in perfectly along the evolutionary spectrum of shows that preceded and came after it.  Nonetheless, no discussion of Family Ties’ success is complete without talking about Michael J. Fox.  His astronomical success paved the way for the show’s development.  As the country turned toward Reagan, the country and the show also, likewise, turned toward Alex.  The creators had not foreseen how huge his character would become.  Gross and Baxter-Birney were resentful of this off the set.  In an interview, Gross said that, “The character of Alex is the one with which the writers are most taken.  It has been a kind of obsession with them.”[6]  Please!  The writers??  Alex P. Keaton had been an obsession of everyone who watched TV.  A People magazine article from 1987 declared, “Fox is so good as Alex Keaton, so secure in the public’s affection, that he can make a film as badly received as the flop musical drama Light of Day and emerge with his image and earning power unaffected.”[7]  A search on google.com last night for “Michael J. Fox” came up with 844,000 hits — a few hundred thousand more than either Pamela Anderson (notorious for heavy downloads) or Tom Cruise, and over 600,000 more than Tom Hanks.  It is hard to find any article about the show that doesn’t attribute much of the success to Michael J. Fox.  There was once a People magazine article about Michael Gross’ marriage, but it was titled “Michael J. Fox’s TV dad engineers his family ties.”[8]

So was it a casting miracle, or the fact that Alex P. Keaton embodied the dominant attitudes of the 1980’s, or both that made Michael J. Fox so successful?  Probably both — Marc Price, who played “Skippy,” most likely wouldn’t have been a successful Alex, but it’s still a safe bet that the Alex character wouldn’t have been as popular in 1975.  The format, structure, characters, storylines and ideologies of Family Ties were designed for the times.  It worked as a sitcom by incorporating re-emerging American family values and nostalgia with an updated style and contemporary concerns.  It drew on past traditions of the sitcom, and affected future innovations.  It’s timing couldn’t have been any better.  The show ends as Alex moves to an apartment in the Big Apple.  And in the ‘nineties, almost eerily, TV seemed to move with him — into the New York apartments of Jerry, George, Monica, Ross, Will, Grace, and now even Bill and Hillary.  We’ll just have to see how long it takes for TV to move back to Columbus, Ohio.


[1] Brush, Stephanie. “3 TV shows that captured a decade.” New York Times June 4, 1989

[2] Nichols, Peter M.. “In a sitcom for its time, teenagers knew best.” New York Times July 5, 1998

[3] http://www.sitcomsonline.com/familyties.html  (Available)

[4] http://www.sitcomsonline.com/familyties.html  (Available)

[5] Nichols, Peter M.. “In a sitcom for its time, teenagers knew best.” New York Times July 5, 1998

[6] Stark, John. “Michael J Fox’s TV Dad Engineers His Family Ties.” People Weekly 26 May, 1986: page 81

[7] Richman, Alan. “Little Big Man.” People Weekly 20 Apr, 1987: page 86 – page 91

[8] Stark, John. “Michael J Fox’s TV Dad Engineers His Family Ties.” People Weekly 26 May, 1986: page 81

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Posted in: Pop Culture